100,000+ Wonderful Pieces of Theater Ephemera Digitized by The New York Public Library


Liv­ing in New York, it’s not unusu­al to encounter ardent the­ater lovers who’ve care­ful­ly pre­served decades worth of pro­grams, tick­ets, and ephemera from every play they’ve ever seen. These col­lec­tions can get a bit hoarder‑y, as any­one who’s ever sort­ed through the belong­ings of a recent­ly depart­ed life­long audi­ence mem­ber can attest.

If the­ater is dead — as gloomy Cas­san­dras have been pre­dict­ing since the advent of screens — these mono­liths of Play­bills and stubs con­sti­tute one hell of a tomb.

Sound of Music

(Go ahead, toss that 1962 pro­gram to The Sound of Music…and why not dri­ve a stake through poor Uncle Mau­rice’s cold, dead heart while you’re at it? All he ever want­ed was to sit, eyes shin­ing in the dark, and maybe hang around the stage door in hopes of scor­ing Acad­e­my Award win­ner, Warn­er Bax­ter’s auto­graph, below. )

Warner Baxter

For those of us who con­ceive of the­atre as a still-liv­ing enti­ty, the New York Pub­lic Library’s recent deci­sion to start dig­i­tiz­ing its Bil­ly Rose The­atre Divi­sion archive is cause for cel­e­bra­tion. Such grand scale com­mit­ment to this art form’s past ensures that it will enjoy a robust future. Hope­ful­ly some­day all of the approx­i­mate­ly 10 mil­lion items in the Bil­ly Rose archive can be accessed from any­where in the world. But, for now, you can start with over 100,000 items. The com­par­a­tive­ly small per­cent­age avail­able now is still a boon to direc­tors, design­ers, writ­ers, and per­form­ers look­ing for inspi­ra­tion.

It’s also wild­ly fun for those of us who nev­er made it much past play­ing a poin­set­tia in the sec­ond grade hol­i­day pageant.


Tru­ly, there’s some­thing for every­one. The library sin­gles out a few tan­ta­liz­ing morsels on its web­site:

A researcher can exam­ine a 1767 pro­gram for a per­for­mance of Romeo and Juli­et in Philadel­phia, study Katharine Hepburn’s per­son­al papers (ed. note: wit­ness the many moods of Kate, above), review Elia Kazan’s work­ing script and notes for the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion of A Street­car Named Desire, exam­ine posters for Har­ry Houdini’s per­for­mances, read a script for an episode of Cap­tain Kan­ga­roo, view set designs for the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion of Guys & Dolls and cos­tume designs for the Ziegfeld Fol­lies, ana­lyze a video­tape of the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion of A Cho­rus Line, and find rich sub­ject files and scrap­books that doc­u­ment the most pop­u­lar and obscure per­for­mances from across the cen­turies. 


You might also prowl for Hal­loween cos­tumes. What kid wouldn’t want to trick or treat as one of Robert Ten Eyck Stevenson’s 1926 designs for the Green­wich Vil­lage Fol­lies?


There’s cer­tain­ly no shame in moon­ing over a for­got­ten star… for the record, the one above is Alla Naz­i­mo­va in Salomé.


And there’s some­thing gal­va­niz­ing about see­ing a famil­iar star escap­ing the con­fines of her best known role, the only one for which she is remem­bered, truth be told…

For me, the hands down pearl of the col­lec­tion is the telegram at the top of the page. For­mer First Lady Eleanor Roo­sevelt sent it Gyp­sy Rose Lee to her­ald the re-open­ing of Gyp­sy, the musi­cal based on her life.

For the unini­ti­at­ed, telegrams were once an open­ing night tra­di­tion, as was stay­ing up to read the review in the ear­ly edi­tion, hot off the press.

More infor­ma­tion on vis­it­ing the archive, online or in per­son, can be found here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe The­atre

New York Pub­lic Library Puts 20,000 Hi-Res Maps Online & Makes Them Free to Down­load and Use

2,200 Rad­i­cal Polit­i­cal Posters Dig­i­tized: A New Archive

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and per­former, whose lat­est play, Fawn­book, opens in New York this fall. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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